BURIED ALIVE. Claw your way to the surface
There is something horrifyingly inhuman in the mere thought of bidding farewell to life as if one is already dead – the constricting movements of the coffin, the limited oxygen leading to eventual suffocation, the inability to escape. And when we grasp the finality of our predicament, fear, panic, and despair set in. This cruel awareness of departing from this world without a trace, without a chance that anyone will ever find us, leaves the living with the question of what happened to us. The greatest nightmare of being buried alive, however, lies within the mind, as such a death questions a certain natural order – we should end up in the ground as the deceased, not as the living.
Cinema seems to rarely utilize this motif, but it’s not surprising given that it’s not very cinematic – it’s definitive and doesn’t provide much room for the victim to take action. We, the viewers, become defenseless against the mere thought of it, not necessarily the imagery, which is perhaps why there are so few successful film portrayals. I have my favorites, whether the protagonist manages to escape certain death or not (Kill Bill vol. 2 by Quentin Tarantino, Buried by Rodrigo Cortés, City of the Living Dead by Lucio Fulci, and above all, Blood Simple by the Coen Brothers). However, in the case of one film, which is, incidentally, the best, the motif of being buried alive is found only in its finale, revealing the title would spoil the entire experience. Someday, I’ll certainly write about it. In the meantime, more than thirty years ago, this theme was tackled by Frank Darabont in his feature film debut, an exceptionally well-executed television thriller with a highly evocative title, Buried Alive (1990).
Clint Goodman, an honest and hardworking construction businessman from a small town, appears content with his life. His company is thriving so much that he’s being offered exorbitant sums to sell it, he has a beautifully constructed home (which he built himself), a wife he loves, and an overall sense that this idyllic picture is perfect, except for one thing – they don’t have a child. Joanna, his beautiful wife, has a completely different perspective. A city girl from New York, she feels stifled in the countryside and can’t understand why Clint won’t sell the company and the house to move to the big city with millions in tow. In the meantime, the bored Mrs. Goodman has an affair with her doctor, Cortland van Owen, who one day proposes a solution to her problems – poison her husband with an undetectable extract from an exotic fish, and once he’s dead, she can enjoy the inheritance and freedom. The plan is put into action, and the betrayed Clint dies. At least, that’s what everyone believes. However, soon after, the poor man wakes up in a coffin, right after his own burial.
Today, it’s hard to believe that this is how the director, possibly best known for his adaptations of master of horror Stephen King’s work, started his career. His early work had nothing to do with horror, except for one exception. Darabont would later create the monumental The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and the heartwrenching The Green Mile (1999), the films he’s most famous for. However, his significant contributions to the screenplays of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1985), The Blob (1989), and The Fly II (1989) would fade into obscurity.
In hindsight, Buried Alive might seem like a surprising debut, but Darabont’s filmography clearly establishes this as a logical choice – he was a specialist in scaring people back then.
The plot revolves around the classic theme of revenge from beyond the grave, with a literal twist, as the protagonist isn’t really dead. Elements of the wicked and greedy wife, cunning lover, and betrayed husband aren’t groundbreaking, but the director handles them flawlessly, not making us wait long for the inevitable resolutions. His affinity for classic narratives, which would fully manifest in his later cinematic works, works exceptionally well here. However, it’s important to remember that television before 2000 wasn’t the place for formal fireworks, although Steven Spielberg’s Duel debut demonstrates that true talents can’t be stifled even by the small screen format. Nonetheless, Darabont embraces the limitations of television with all its advantages, agreeing to the economy of this medium’s language. The action is set within the first 10 minutes, the characters are relatively simple, and the 4:3 aspect ratio serves as a reminder that televisions once had almost square screens, not widescreens.
However, the director has a solid screenplay and excellent actors who elevate Buried Alive to a level that few other TV productions can reach. Tim Matheson, who plays Clint (known for his roles in Animal House and Fletch), is likable in the “living” phase and seemingly lifeless in the second half of the film. When it’s time for revenge, he doesn’t seem to derive any satisfaction from it; it’s more like something he has to do. Jennifer Jason Leigh, known from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Hitcher, but before the peak of her career, portrays Joanna in a way that leaves no doubt she’s a truly wicked character, yet trapped in a marital life she never wanted. This thought is further fueled by Cortland, a skillful manipulator and liar, even more greedy than Joanna. William Atherton, best known for playing unsavory characters in movies like Ghostbusters and Die Hard, is perfect in his role. The entire trio breathes life into their characters, although in Matheson’s case, it might be more accurate to say he breathes death. Leigh and Atherton, on the other hand, have a great time, pushing their characters to the brink of absurdity when they start a deadly game between themselves.
What Darabont excels at in his first film is infusing this thriller with elements that are more readily associated with horror than a realistic crime and punishment narrative. The moment Clint escapes from the buried coffin is straight out of a gothic novel, with a cemetery at night, a raging thunderstorm with lightning in the sky, a loyal dog waiting for its master, and an unexpected return. The protagonist of Buried Alive genuinely looks like a specter, all muddy, with a deathly pale face, hands injured from breaking open the coffin lid, making it seem like we’re about to see bones, and the gait of the living dead. Even in this surreal moment, the director adheres to logic, explaining how it’s possible for Clint to have any chance of returning to the land of the living or how someone could survive a direct close-range shotgun blast.
A horror stripped of mystery and fantasy appears as something different, although one cannot deny that Buried Alive still carries an atmosphere of dread, along with a few scenes and ideas that send shivers down your spine (like the “cooking” of hands in hydrogen peroxide). Positioned somewhere between the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, this tale of revenge from beyond the grave is too traditional to be truly frightening but remains memorable due to its imaginative solutions and surprising finale. Clint’s plan is wonderfully perverse, and the final scene is strangely moving. Even though the act of being buried alive primarily serves to introduce horror elements rather than real terror, one cannot escape the image of a person waking up in a coffin and desperately clawing their way to the surface. It might not be a tunnel filled with excrement the length of five football fields, but it’s certainly quite close.